Obituary - Derek Wise

17th September 2010 at 01:00


Derek Wise, his colleagues all say, was the embodiment of Tony Blair's "education, education, education" slogan.

Yes, he liked a pint: it provided a relaxed context in which to talk about education. He enjoyed football matches: they served as a handy analogy for running a school. And he liked foreign travel: it offered opportunities to observe different education systems.

Derek Wise was born in June 1949 and attended his local grammar school, in the Cotswolds town of Chipping Sodbury. It was not a satisfying experience: subsumed within the grammar system, his individuality went unacknowledged. He left school with a deep desire to right the wrongs of his own experience.

As a child, he had developed a keen interest in chess. Later, studying history at Hull University, he became junior international champion.

His first job was as history teacher at Deben High School in Suffolk. From the start, his aim was to change the face of education: to create a school children would want to attend, an exemplar for the world. Within three years, he had been promoted to head of history at nearby Sir John Leman High.

In 1980, he began a master's degree in education. He had an insatiable intellectual curiosity and was always on the look-out for new resources that could be applied in school.

And he was always on the job, ready for work. Years later, on a research visit to Australia, he and a colleague took a side trip through an ancient rainforest. While the colleague wore shorts and T-shirt, Mr Wise's sole concession to the tropics was to remove his tie.

In 1984, he was appointed to his first deputy headship; six years later, he was named head of Cramlington, a 14-18 Northumberland comprehensive.

It was his chess-playing side that ultimately won him the job. He was thoughtful, but he was also capable of taking chances: sizing up a situation and estimating how it might develop. And there was clearly room for experimentation at Cramlington: only a third of pupils were achieving five A*-C grades at GCSE.

He began simply, painting and recarpeting the 1960s building and replacing traditional furniture with round tables. Next, he brought in speakers to advise staff on teaching practice. He built new classrooms, and introduced computers.

Mr Wise found the term "secondary school" insipid. So, inspired by the proverb that it takes a village to raise a child, the institution was renamed Cramlington Learning Village. By 2002, his learning village was named "outstanding" by inspectors.

He was not conventionally charismatic: there was no overwhelming personal magnetism. But he had immense knowledge and infectious enthusiasm. This was particularly evident during school meetings. When discussions went on too long, he would leave the table and gaze absently out the window, hands in pockets. Then he would return to the table and end the discussion with a few well-chosen sentences.

He had married Anne, a primary teacher, in 1989; eight years later, she died of a brain haemorrhage. After that, Mr Wise became even more single-minded in his educational focus. He would happily call up a colleague at 8am on a Sunday morning to discuss school improvement ideas.

He was a season ticket holder for Newcastle United, and match-side conversation might occasionally stray to the day's game. But, ultimately, it would shift to more important matters: a comparison of footballing and educational strategies.

Holidays were spent travelling the world, studying international education systems. There were trips to schools in New Zealand, the US and China. One particularly disaster-strewn trip to Australia involved missed flights and a 10-hour layover in Los Angeles. When the dishevelled Cramlington delegation finally arrived at their destination, two of its members assumed that the day would be spent recovering. "See you in the lobby in half an hour?" Mr Wise said. "We have a school to visit."

Any remaining time was spent on education committees. He was on the board of Becta, advised the Government's innovations unit, and supported the National College for School Leadership. In 2008, the year Cramlington became an all-through comprehensive, he was awarded a CBE.

Mr Wise was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma earlier this year. But he was circumspect in illness: "If you've loved and been loved, if you've spent your life doing something that made a difference, and been recognised for it, it's not a bad life, is it?" he said. He was 61 years old when he died.

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